Recently going back and acting in front of a camera was enjoyable if not somewhat nerve wracking. I wasn’t expecting a call. One of my acting teachers Nick Enright always said, “Don’t sit by the phone expecting a call,” meaning you need to get out there and sell yourself, get involved, be creative and productive on your own behalf; back in the 1980s when Nick offered this advice things were different, no social media opportunities to promote oneself.
Over recent times if asked if it were true that I had been in a film I generally replied, “My last film was a silent movie,” because that’s fun and accurate.
In 2005 I played the Drunk Pedestrian in Dr Plonk (Rolf De Heer, 2007) a silent film. A fun experience with elements that nicely bookmarked my adventures in Australian Film up until that moment so if I had never been in another movie it would have been a nice tale to tell; how I had started with Money Movers (Bruce Beresford, 1978) and I think I met legendary stunt man Grant Page at Rolley Park Speedway on that shoot, and here he was overseeing my stunt in 2005 on Dr Plonk, very nice.
Rolf De Heer the Director was making the film by stealth on the streets of Adelaide, he’d had a thought that I’d be sitting holding a bottle on the steps of Parliament until Dr Plonk would blast past me knock me backwards as he did. Later as Dr Plonk passed me again I would be bandaged up as if in a cartoon. Rolf thought it would be amusing to bandage the bottle to my hand, as it was a fixture of the character, which all made sense in the crazy humorous world of Dr Plonk.
Grant Page was there to make sure I didn’t break my back falling backwards on the stone steps of Parliament and he was a little concerned because that bottle was a real beer bottle, not sugar glass, real glass. It was the point of some concern for Grant because I’d be swinging backwards onto stone steps and Grant did not want this bottle to smash in my hand, nor did I. Although I liked the element of danger because of the tensions a character carries; we’ve probably all seen the drunk who falls badly in order to save their bottle?
I have done some community announcement short films since 2005 but that was as myself or as a voice over so I don’t really count it as acting because it tends to draw from broadcasting. In 1987 at the Australian Film Television and Radio School I was one of a very lucky group of actors who were employed to work over several weeks with Ross McGregor and his students. We were working with the students to give them an insight into the way actors work. One of the added benefits of the job was being involved in day after day of workshops; another benefit was being there when Billy Marshall Stoneking was making a documentary with a First Nation indigenous artist and elder called Nose Peg. I spent a day working on some canvasses he was creating. Dot painting. I must remember to elaborate on that wonderful afternoon some time.
Yes, being part of the AFTRS course work was very much like attending acting school and at times like the National Playwrights Conferences or InterPlay the International Youth Playwrights Conference at The Performance Space and Sydney Opera House in 1986 where scripts were being developed every day and people would be tapping us actors on the shoulder asking for a few minutes or hours or days to work on something. Extremely fertile ground; Ross McGregor offered insights that were spot-on with really good examples to go along with them, and being at a film school he would screen the scene or the film he was talking about and illustrate the examples he was making. One I remember well is some great advice about acting on film and thinking. Using Sissey Spacek as his example in Bruce Beresford’s Crimes of the Heart (Bruce Beresford, 1986) a film with a stellar cast including Dianne Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard, Ross asked us to watch what Spacek was thinking as she clutched her pearls for a moment in a head and shoulder shot.
The Clegg Family
The Clegg Family
The Clegg Family
The Clegg Family
He was drawing our attention to the actor thinking. It sounds obvious doesn’t it? An actor thinks in character. Someone may say, “Don’t over-think it,” and they may mean don’t fix onto something that blocks your natural flow or they may mean something else but you do need to be aware that as an actor in a frame that is part of a story you do need to have something going on in your head. Obvious as it sounds I think it is sound advice. There is nothing worse than seeing yourself gormless when you ought to have been on the ball.
When faced with the prospect of acting for film again I focused on my previous experiences acting on film professionally; for example, Bruce Beresford in 1978 explaining what we were doing in a scene and why he was slinging handfuls of pebbles around us at a speedway; it was ‘atmosphere’; or John Meillon having a bad day on location during The Dunera Boys, conversations with Holly Hunter, Simon Pegg and Sir Ian McKellen about working on stage as opposed to film; particularly McKellen’s approach, ‘trust that you are naturally doing what they want you to do, if you’re not it is to their advantage to correct you’. I enjoy acting. It was all I ever really wanted to do and for a while I had the best job an out of work actor could have possibly had, I produced community radio.
In the late 1970s Liza Minnelli performed in Adelaide at the Festival Theatre and I went along. After her concert I waited to see if it was humanly possible ‘Hello,’ and yes, it was. I was sixteen and had seen ‘New York New York’ in its original theatrical release and loved every moment of it. I played the album at home on the stereo. I exchanged pleasantries with Liza, held her hand, gave her a gift. She was fabulous. I kept my cool but I said something without thinking, I said, “You were in Judy’s woumb,” and she said, “Yes, I was!” which is the best reaction I could have wanted. I hadn’t thought about what I was saying before blurting it out at her and to this day I’m grateful she was so gracious; Liza even sent me a thank you note which I think burned in a house fire in 1989.
Before I ever left South Australia I had met celebrities; plenty of local ones who were involved in the television production scene around the metropolis of Adelaide. A few international ones because Adelaide is not so big and back in the day there was no need to have security guards if you were Debbie Harry wandering around the South Australian Museum or Noel Crombie having a coffee in a café. People were far more approachable and accessible.
When I’ve been the person in the spotlight sometimes I have had encounters with people who have been really awful, physically abusive a few times; the best way to be if you wish to make a point is clear and non abusive I think.
I say all this because by the time I was doing a stint in community radio, producing a weekly show, I had already met all sorts of really well accomplished people. I think part of coming from Adelaide was having the International Arts Festival and a semi-regular influx of engaging art to see, and the artists of course.
In relation to community radio, being interested in art meant there were always questions to ask; talking about art draws you closer to the various elements that make it, also having been involved in creating art, well it starts to become a specialist area after a while I think and you discover different ways of talking about it that help construct engaging entries into whatever art you are focusing on.